OK, I'll admit it-I have a morbid fascination with the idea of Mormon polygamy. It's not quite risen to the point that I am watching Sister Wives on TLC, but it's close. I've decided it's similar to the reason rubberneckers slow down at an accident scene, or people rush out to see the results of some natural disaster. Somehow you just get sucked into the horror and drama of it all. I also have a strange fascination with Mormonism in general. As an atheist most religious belief stretches the bounds of my reason, but Mormonism in particular (along with Scientology) surprise me. Most faith traditions at least have thousands of years of cultural weight behind them. I have a hard time seeing how Mormonism started, however, given that it was only founded in the mid-1800s. I mean, if Joseph Smith were a "prophet" today, and claimed that he spoke with the angel Moroni and that he found golden plates with the words of God on them, but then lost them again, the psychiatric community would call him schizophrenic. I don't mean to sound disrespectful-I feel strongly that everyone has the right to their own religious beliefs. I'm just making an observation.
Ebershoff obviously did a lot of research in preparation of writing The 19th Wife. Ann Eliza Young was a real person, and she did write a memoir of her time as a Mormon. While Ebershoff is clear that the book is a fictional account, there is a lot of factual information. I read several parts of the books with my laptop close by, so that I could check the factual nature of the story. The Firsts are surely modeled after the Fundamentalist Church of Later-Day Saints, the polygamist cult headed by the notorious Warren Jeffs. Jordan's character and the other former Firsters in the book describe many of the conditions that The FLDS has been accused of. Aside from the many wives of the men, there were accusations of welfare fraud, child abuse, child sexual abuse, rape, and the forcible marriage of underage girls to much older men. While there are those that argue that plural marriage is a religious practice that should be respected when entered into by consenting adults, I think that we've seen enough evidence in a variety of cultures that in reality plural marriage mostly serves to concentrate power in the males of the group, and leave the women very little control over their lives.